The Apollo 10 astronauts were on the far side of the moon, as far from radio contact and the Earth as anyone had ever been. That's when they heard a high-pitched sound crackling through their instruments.
The Apollo 10 mission had launched on May 18, 1969, intended to test out the command module and the lunar module separating and coming back together. The whole performance was a sort of dress rehearsal for the actual lunar landing with the Apollo 11 astronauts.
The astronauts selected for the trip all happened to have flight experience already, since all three were veterans of Project Gemini, NASA's second human spaceflight program. (Most of the 32 astronauts chosen to be in the Apollo program were veterans of Gemini or Project Mercury, the first U.S. manned spaceflight program.) They were all men who had been chosen because they had both the physical ability and the mental capacity to deal with the rigors and strain and risk that came with spaceflight.
Out of contact with Mission Control, the men sat inside the modules and talked about what they'd just heard. At the time, it was just them talking, but NASA audio recorders captured and preserved the conversation. The astronauts, mission commander Thomas Stafford, command module pilot John Young and lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan, all heard the sounds, a cross between an electric song and a lunar wail.
"That music even sounds outer-spacey, doesn't it?" asks Cernan. "You hear that? That whistling sound?"
"Yes," Stafford says
"Whooooo," Cernan says, mimicking the noise.
"Sounds like, you know, outer space-type music," Cernan adds.
"We're going to have to find out about that," Young says later. "Nobody will believe us."
It went on for about an hour as the modules drifted by in the moon's shadow. When the astronauts got back into contact with Mission Control, the noises stopped.
Until now, that is. In the past week, media outlets, including the Huffington Post, CBS News, CNN and a whole plethora of other media organizations, all reporting with varying levels of credulity, have issued stories on the "newly discovered""moon music" and the efforts NASA officials supposedly took to cover up the music's existence all these years, only releasing the audio files now, according to various breathless news reports.
Of course, when you look at the record, that isn't entirely how the Apollo 10 "moon music" incident was handled. NASA stated on Tumblr that the Apollo 10 transcripts and audio recordings were originally kept confidential, but both have technically been publicly available since 1973. NASA posted the transcript of the Apollo 10 missions in 2008, and the audio recordings were actually uploaded to the interwebs in 2012, according to NASA.
The whole "moon music conspiracy" falls flat because, well, this stuff simply hadn't been hidden. It's just that nobody noticed it until now.
However, the "moon music" incident does give us something unexpected: If you listen closely to the audio files, you get some idea of what it must have been like to be Young, Cernan and Stafford sitting in their spacecraft doing things that would have sounded impossible even 30 years before, with the moon out the window, and strange, inexplicable noises filling their ears.
Back then, space flight was still being invented as everyone went along. Nothing was "normal." Some people certainly would have been freaked out to hear some sort of "moon song" coming at them while they were hanging out there in the darkness, waiting for the next step in the mission. On the recording, even those astronauts who had been trained to take everything in stride started to sound a little spooked by what they're hearing.
These guys were picked for the Apollo program for the same reasons that every guy was selected to become an astronaut: Because they had the "right stuff," both the mental and physical characteristics that were needed to be able to do this very demanding job.
Every astronaut in the Apollo program wanted to fly to outer space and to be on as many missions as possible. After all, this is what they'd worked and trained for. The ones who, in taking the biggest risks, would actually get to see, and maybe eventually even land on, the moon where the lucky ones.
But anyone who showed signs of either physical or mental strain could easily be kicked out of the running for one of the Apollo missions.
The moonshot was the assignment that just about every astronaut dreamed of. Apollo 10 was a successful test run for the lunar landing, not the real deal, but Mission Control knew that the lunar module crew would be so achingly close to the lunar surface during the mission that NASA made sure to eliminate any temptation, seeing to it the lunar module didn't have enough fuel to land and then lift off to get back to the command module, according to NASA historian Craig Nelson.
NASA took those precautions because it knew there was a wild streak in anyone who was willing to join the federal government's nascent moonshot program and risk his life to possibly be the first man on the moon. And NASA understood that there would be temptation on the lunar module during Apollo 10. But there's a distinct difference between being someone who is so eager to jump out there, and the entire Apollo 10 crew discussing, on recorder, these unexplained noises they're all hearing.
"You know, that was funny. That's just like something from outer space, really," Cernan says a little while later. "Who's going to believe it?"
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"Nobody," Young says. "Shall we tell them about it?"
"I don't know, Cernan says. "We ought to think about it some."
In the end, the astronauts didn't exactly cover up what they'd heard, but they gingerly mentioned the sounds they'd heard during their debriefing, according to Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. They didn't talk it up publicly. It wasn't because they were convinced it was some alien symphony being piped into their ears (Cernan now says he didn't take it that seriously and he's sure it was just radio interference, according to CNN). But it makes sense that the guys who had trained themselves to be calm and cool about everything would be reluctant to start talking about the noises that clearly surprised them as they orbited the moon.
Why would they? They were astronauts, some of the first, the guys who were never supposed to flinch. Only astronauts who lacked the nerve and grit needed to fly in outer space would admit that "moon music" totally freaked them out.